Saturday, October 31, 2020

Totally Under Control Reflects The Human Toll of Powerful Incompetency

There are topical movies and then there are movies so ripped straight from the headlines that if they were newspapers, the ink would still be wet. The new documentary Totally Under Control, directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger falls into the latter category. Covering America's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie is so determined to keep itself current that it closes on text saying that, the day, after Totally Under Control was completed, Trump got diagnosed with COVID-19. Thankfully, Totally Under Contol isn't just running around clutching hot-button issues. It's still a good documentary on its own merits, even if it's one that's harrowing enough to make it understandable if viewers want to give it a skip for now.

Across Totally Under Control, we get interviews with health officials, doctors and other personnel who've been in the trenches of the COVID-19 pandemic talking about how the American government has bungled their response to this health crisis. The scope of this feature is expansive, with interview subjects ranging from an intern working for Jared Kuschner to a health official from South Korea. Through this canvas, one truly gets a sense for just how widespread the effects of America's callous attitude towards COVID-19 is and how the blame for this phenomenon doesn't just stop with the POTUS.

Oh, Trump's got a lot of this blame on his shoulders, including putting together a task force to respond to the virus that eschews scientists in favor of close allies with no scientific experience. But what's terrifying about Totally Under Control is how it reflects that America's lack of preparedness dates way back before 2020. The widely-criticized response to the Ebola in 2013 and the fact that, since 2005, there's only one company producing facemasks in America are shown to be particularly ominous harbingers of what we've been dealing with throughout 2020. These events aren't highlighted to create excuses for a current corrupt regime, but rather, to show how groundwork for a pandemic like this to flourish had already been laid. 

In terms of events from 2020, Totally Under Control chronicles this material with as much captivating suspense as any fictional political thrillers. Archival footage, old emails, and anecdotes from interview subjects help showcase the struggles of health officials trying to sound the alarm of an incoming pandemic. The level of frustration I felt watching this was unspeakably high. I could feel all the agitation from these individuals as they relayed their attempts to speak sense into people who just didn't want to hear about reality. Totally Under Control shows that, long before social distancing became a part of America's vocabulary, there were people trying to take action. 

Alas, these measures did not produce actual action. Among those measures were attempts by the head of a company producing facemasks in America. He wanted to get financing to make sure there were enough facemasks for the American public. Unfortunately, the CDC responded to a potential facemask shortage by simply urging Americans not to wear facemasks. It's a bizarre move that reflects how badly the American government responded to this whole crisis. Watching the testimony from this business owner as he sheds tears over not being able to help people, you see the human toll that this bad response has left in its wake. The story of the COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, but Totally Under Control still functions as a stirring reflection of the past and a call to arms for us to do better in the future.

Austin Film Festival: Paper Tiger Is Too Obvious For Its Own Good

Do you ever watch a movie and get frustrated by it? Not angry, not disappointed, just frustrated. It's like watching a student you know can deliver an A paper settle for just turning in a C paper. Paper Tiger was like that for me. There's an intriguing psychological thriller in here. The potential is there. Certain scenes are good enough to demonstrate that we could have had something special here. Unfortunately, Paper Tiger doesn't quite go the distance like it should. Too often, writer/director Paul Kowalski settles for going the obvious route in its storytelling. It tosses ambiguity into the wind in favor of a more generic exploration of its grim story.  

Paper Tiger is about Lily (Lydia Look) and her son Edward (Alan Trong). It's been a tough year for both of them. Lily's husband and Edward's dad recently passed away. At the same time, Edward is struggling to fit into his high school during his senior year. With all this going on, Edward has begun to immerse himself in virtual-reality video games and has begun having psychological episodes at home and at school. With her son lashing out and talking about how much he considers his classmates "zero's", Lily begins to worry. What has her son become? A thought soon begins to creep into Lily's mind that Edward could be gearing up to become a school shooter. 

It's easy to see a really compelling version of Paper Tiger. It's one told from Lily's perspective. Edward is kept at a distance from the viewer so that a real sense of ambiguity can be imbued into his actions. Unfortunately, Paper Tiger decides to get up-close-and-personal with both of these characters. Among the many problems with this approach is that subtlety is totally eschewed. Edward doesn't just resemble a traditional version of a school shooter, he practically bellows about it. Additionally, Paper Tigers makes the gross choice of suggesting violent video games are a key contributor to endorsing violent behavior. Is society really still acting like violent games or rock songs are the crux of mass shootings instead of white supremacy?

Even more uncomfortable is how Paper Tigers then coats all of Edward's actions as explicitly evil. Rather than leaving it up to the audience to decide if Lily is misinterpreting her son's behavior or not, moments of Edward just talking to himself or doodling in a journal are played with the same kind of music and cinematography one would use to depict Jason from Friday the 13th butchering someone. It's a strange choice on its own, but it's especially weird to go this route with behavior that can't help but evoke traits largely associated with autism (Edward is not explicitly diagnosed as autistic, for the record). As someone with autism, it's disheartening to see movies in 2020 still coding behavior associated with autistic as "evil". 

That troubling stereotype reaffirms how Paper Tiger also goes down incredibly tired routes to generate tension. It's also an extension of how the whole movie tends to not just woke but jab your ribs when it comes to declaring what's ominous. Characters exchange dialogue that awkwardly lays out their frustrations while the direction never leaves room for imagination on what we're supposed to be unnerved by. Paper Tiger doesn't trust its audience enough and all that hand-holding upends its attempts at being a grim thriller.

On the other hand, the production fares much better wringing tension out of scenes hinged on differing approaches to Western medicine. Lily, Edward and Lily's sister Mei (Elaine Kao) have come from China. Mei keeps suggesting that Lily try more traditional Eastern approaches to treating Edward while it's mentioned that Edward's father died because he refused Western medical practices. There's a lot of interesting and very specifically-detailed conflict here that proves to be the most interesting part of Paper Tiger.

Here is the moral complexity that the rest of the movie so desperately lacks. You can so easily see both perspectives of Edward and Lily when they have an argument over this. Lily just wants her son to be better while Edward refuses to trust taking pills after the loss of his father. Here, Paper Tiger creates tension out of material that grounded within these specific characters, not tired stereotypes about "autism=creepy" or video games being inherently the root of violence. Similarly successful is the films final twenty minutes, which certainly deserve props for going all the way with the inherent bleakness of this story, which is apparently based on real events. Nobody can say Kowalski chickened out with a tidy happy ending here on Paper Tiger.

It's a pity Paper Tiger often indulges in over-the-top demonstrations of Edward's anger or motivations because Kowalski's visual sensibilities actually flourish in quiet demonstrations of anguish. Especially powerful is shot that opens the movie concerning Lily sitting in her trashed living room. At this point, this character is or how her living room got like this. But this image exudes so much woe that we're compelled to keep watching and find out how we got here. Unfortunately, what follows in Paper Tiger tends to undercut its best qualities by leaning on tired stereotypes and storytelling that's too overt for its own good. Like I said, the whole exercise proves so frustrating.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Austin Film Festival: Whether You're a Bowie Super-Fan or Not, Stardust Proves Infuriatingly Incompetent

Who is this movie for?

Often times, that question is redundant. A piece of art doesn't have to be made for anyone beyond the person crafting it. Other times though, one can't help but wonder who the target audience for a movie is. Take Stardust, for example. This David Bowie biopic is a mechanical mixture of Bohemian Rhapsody and A Beautiful Mind. Who is this for? A sanitized take on Bowie would seemingly be for older audiences but would that crowd have any interest in a Bowie biopic in the first place? And the whole thing seems to be made from the ground-up to alienate fans of either Bowie or good filmmaking. 

Stardust is the cinematic equivalent of a bad singer belting out a tired rendition of Billy Joel's Piano Man to an empty lobby at a Holiday Inn. It's lazy art made for exactly nobody.

Stardust follows David Bowie (Johnny Flynn) at the start of 1971 as he embarks on an American tour to promote hs newest album. Bowie's eccentric stage persona has alienated all American publicists save for Ron Oberman (Marc Maron). He see's something special in Bowie even after this rock star keeps botching high-profile interviews. As Bowie and Oberman try to make America fall in love with this singer, Bowie has a personal crisis centered on his brother. No, his brother didn't die in a machete fight when they were young. His brothers in an asylum, suffering from schizophrenia as part of a long-tradition of mental health issues in Bowie's family. Bowie now struggles to establish his own new identity in the face of his family's past and the modern-day world's rejection of him.

The greatest flaw in Stardust's screenplay by Christopher Bell and Gabriel Range (the latter of whom also directs) is how often it sidelines Bowie in his own story. The movie treats Bowie as a sideshow act we're supposed to laugh at. In the hands of this script and Flynn's performance, Bowie is more like a late-period Johnny Depp character. He's a bunch of eccentricities (like engaging in a mime performance during an interview) but no actual personality. Scenes set inside his head prove similarly underwhelming. Stardust is more interested in using Bowie's personal troubles to craft a tidy origin story for his Ziggy Stardust persona than using them to explore Bowie as a human being.

This caricature of David Bowie is plopped into a rote road trip story where Bowie and Oberman spend the first-half of Stardust engaging in the same dynamic as Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson. Bowie will do something wacky, Oberman gets frustrated, the two barely reconcile, the road trip continues until Bowie's next round of shenanigans. Rinse, wash, repeat. On and on this goes. All the while, the script forgot to give us any reason to care about these characters. This is mainly due to the staggeringly stupid decision to keep what's aching this version of Bowie a secret until the final half-hour. Going this route makes it impossible to get a hold on who Bowie is as a person. By the time we understand his motivation, it's too little, too late.

Then there are the characters surrounding Bowie and Oberman, which include Jena Malone as Kimberly Guilfoyle as Angie Bowie. These figures frequently talk about either how weird or great Bowie is as an artist. The praiseworthy dialogue about Bowie begins to feel like Tobias Funke trying to do awkward watercooler talk after a while. All of this talk feels so hollow, though, since Stardust never shows us the performances inspiring all this talk. You see, Stardust isn't legally allowed to use any of Bowie's actual music. This means the only songs sung by this version of Bowie are covers of tunes by Jacques Brel. Thus, we never get to actually see the performances that are inspiring all of the in-movie conversations. It's a terrible case of telling but not showing. To boot, removing sequences of Bowie singing songs on-stage robs Stardust any opportunities for visual extravagance. Under the direction of Range, the whole production looks like a TNT original movie processed through a washed-out color filter. Even just some mechanically-orchestrated musical numbers could have livened up the color palette.

Then again, a climax featuring Bowie performing on-stage, complete with a laughably bad recreation of his Ziggy Stardust outfit, is so horrendous that maybe it's a blessing Stardust didn't give us more music. Also a no-show here? Any exploration of Bowie's sexuality. Anytime Bowie's gender fluidity gets brought up here, it's for either jokes or comments from bigots about how "weird" it is to see a man wearing a dress or makeup. Meanwhile, the only explicit depiction of queerness is two ladies kissing, a moment shot for maximum male gaze pleasure. Starman is a pretty bad music biopic all around. However, it's total botching of Bowie's sexuality and gender makes it feel like something extra gross. Stardust is nothing short of the "safe" version of Bowie's life that your homophobic aunt would adore.

Stardust doesn't just betray its central subject when it comes to queer material. Bowie was a person who pushed artistic boundaries whereas Stardust is all too happy to fit snugly into a music biopic box. This is a movie that conforms to the norms whereas the real Bowie did anything but. Worst of all is the baffling idea to make a David Bowie movie that keeps everything about this artist at arms' length. His internal psyche, his music, his sexuality, none of it is explored in Stardust. What we're left with is a hollow mess that oscillates between being boring and uncomfortable.  Who knows if there's life on Mars, but I know for sure there's no life in Stardust.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: Videodrome

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #26: Videodrome

Who better to close out this year's edition of 13 Days of First-Time Frights than David Cronenberg?

Cronenberg has left an undeniable stamp on the world of horror cinema. In particular, he's proven to be the architect of the body horror subgenre. In 2020, if you're doing any kind of pop culture that involves the horrors of the human body, whether you're an indie movie or Rick & Morty, Cronenberg's name is bound to come up. Cronenberg's contributions to this subgenre were solidified in his earliest directorial efforts like Scanners or the subject of this review, Videodrome.  With these projects, the tell-tale signs of Cronenberg were on full display and the world of horror would never be the same.

Videodrome's protagonist is Max Renn (James Woods), who works the terrifying job of being a slimy TV executive. He oversee's CIVIC-TV, a public broadcast station in Toronto, Canada, In order to grab any eyeballs whatsoever, CIVIC-TV plays programming with a fixation on sex and violence. It's not a pretty business but it is his. An obscure program called Videodrome is brought to Renn's attention and he immediately wants it. Videodrome consists of women being tortured by big burly men in an empty yellow room. It's perfect CIVIC-TV content! But going on the hunt for this footage leads Renn to discover that watching Videodrome instills hallucinations into the viewer. Now Renn must figure out if his grasp on reality is slipping away or if he's stumbled onto a new conspiracy...

Videodrome is one of those movies you just have to roll with. What starts out as a commentary on public television and lewd on-air programming quickly becomes...something else. In the final half-hour of Videodrome, I had to chuckle to myself as I realized that Videodrome's central metaphor seemed ot have vanished. The thing is, I don't think that's an accident on the part of screenwriter David Cronenberg. He establishes a world of rules for the character for Renn and a seemingly concrete thematic throughline for the audience to follow. As Renn becomes more and more immersed in the surreal visions of Videodrome, both of those things vanish.

It's an explicit way of telling the viewer that nothing can be trusted in this movie. Any potential social commentary will be sacrificed at the altar of gooey otherworldly visions. And when I say gooey, boy do I mean. Not just in regards to blood either. Renn's own hand, whilst it's a clutching a gun, is transformed into some kind of sticky gooey substance from another world. The HD transfer of Videodrome makes the gloopy texture of this and other substances to tangible. You wanna recoil back, yet your eyes are captivated by the sheer strangeness of the entity. Rick Baker's magnificent makeup effects have created the visual effect equiavelent of a traincrash, something horrendous you must stare at.

Of course, the makeup and visual effects are anything but a traincrash. They're still remarkable decades after Videodrome's release. The wizardry used to realize the opening of Renn's stomach is especially an impressive feat. It totally looks seamless and believable while still carrying an appropriate dream-like quality to it. The VFX in Videodrome constantly challenge you to imagine what could be real and what could be a nightmare, placing us squarely in the mind of Renn. Cronenberg's bravura direction further enhances this quality. He never holds back in filming the gross-out mayhem that's unleashed once Renn watches that fateful video tape. His camera never blinks and he encourages the audience to do the same.

Future Cronenberg efforts like The Fly and A History of Violence might be a touch more cohesive than Videodrome, but then again, Videodrome is going for anything but cohesive. This movies main aesthetic is that of a nightmare gone on the warpath. Since when do nightmares adhere to traditional story structures? Videodrome is all about upending what the viewer expects in the name of the gruesome and slimy. The result of those ambitions is something I couldn't turn away from. Cronenberg's imagination is so vivid, from his obsession with body horror to his own sexual proclivities peeking out of the margins. As seen with Videodrome, his warped creativity makes for totally idiosyncratic horror cinema.

13 Days of First-Time Frights: The Wicker Man

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #25: The Wicker Man

If you're a moviegoer of a certain age, you might know The Wicker Man only as a 2006 movie starring Nicolas Cage. More specifically, you might know The Wicker Man as a 2006 movie that spawned a GIF's of Nicolas Cage getting attacked by bee's Those GIF's are pretty fun, no question. The movie itself, meanwhile, is a disaster but the fun kind. It's one step above The Creeping Terror, just a totally miscalculated horror movie more capable of delivering unintentional laughs than anything resembling scares. But before all of that nonsense, there was the original Wicker Man, which is rightfully hailed as one of the all-time great horror movies.

Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) has come to the remote island of Sumerisle to investigate something serious. He has received a note that a girl named Rowan Morrison has gone missing on this island. When he arrives, Howie's suspicious are immediately activated by how nobody on this island seems to believe Morrison even exists. Perturbed by the fact that nobody on this island cares a girl is missing, Howie becomes even more disturbed once he realizes that this island's inhabitants are worshipping Pagan Celtic Gods. As a Christian man, Howie is utterly appalled by this theological transgression and only becomes even more so after a talk with the island's leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).

The 1973 Wicker Man made me dislike that new Wicker Man remake even more than I already! Now it's apparent that the remake goes the safe route in every place imaginable! Most notably, the musical numbers of the original Wicker Man and the theological quarrels are all gone. To make a generic 21st-century horror movie, The Wicker Man (2006) sucked all the personality out of its predecessor. Oh well, at least we'll always have this original movie, which really is an impressive feat. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer's ambition with The Wicker Man to create a more "literate" horror movie has been fulfilled and then some! 

Much like modern-day horror movie Midsommar, Wicker Man realizes how much terrifying things can be when caught in broad daylight. Nighttime is heavily eschewed in favor of setting Howie's investigation in the middle of the day. With the sun pouring in, Wicker Man often conjures up images that are just as beautiful as they are unnerving. The first time Howie sees a group of naked women engaging in a pagan ritual, for instance, is framed and shot to look warm, inviting and even like something you'd seen in a classical painting. The reason this sight is so terrifying to Howie is that it goes against his beliefs, not because it's inherently an unnerving image.

All throughout Shaffer's script, he finds unique and specific ways to define what's "scary" in The Wicker Man. A prime example of this is how Howie takes it upon himself to barge into everybody's homes in the third act to investigate where Rowan could be. Suddenly, our supposed "protagonist" is carrying out more intrusive acts than Howie's antagonists. If someone did this in your own home, wouldn't it be chilling? The Wicker Man keeps fiddling around with what is scary and to whom and it makes for such a thrilling experience. All the while, director Robin Hardy delivers striking images that deliver equal levels of beauty and scares.

Nowhere is this more apparent than that iconic climax, which simultaneously rivets, unnerves, and leaves you in visual awe. Howie and the residents of Summerisle engaging in competing religious chants as Howie burns alive in a giant wooden man. The fact that The Wicker Man is keeping the religious elements of its story so apparent right down to its final scene is thoroughly impressive. Meanwhile, the shots of this wooden figure being engulfed in the flames are flat-out gorgeous. The Wicker Man closes out with the kind of craftsmanship and ambition that defines the entire production. Don't let that dreadful remake steer you away from the original Wicker Man, which remains a feat of horror filmmaking nearly fifty years later.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: Eyes Without a Face

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #24: Eyes Without a Face 

Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brassuer) would do anything for his daughter, Christiane (Édith Scob), whose face was hideously scarred in an automobile accident. This doesn't just mean bringing her soup or helping her with the mask she wears upon her face. Génessier is determined to make a new skin for his daughter's face. This task entails himself and his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) kidnapping women and peeling off their faces in the hopes of creating a new face for Christiane. Normal father stuff, ya know. As the experiments go on and the bodies pile up, Christiane is beginning to wish she was just dead rather than the reason so many deaths. Can anything stop her anguish or the rampage of her father?

Alright, let's dive right into the part of Eyes Without a Face everyone wants to talk about: its gruesomeness. Even though French films in 1962 weren't bound by the restrictive Hays Code that American films had to navigate, I still wasn't ready for just how grisly Eyes Without a Face was. My expectations for how horror films in the early 1960s operated was totally upended the moment Génessier began a procedure that consisted of him peeling off a ladies face entirely on-camera. No cutaways to imply the action rather than show it, no, director Georges Franju is just going for it. It's all on-screen to make your stomach retch and put your heart in your throat.

The sequence is truly remarkable even beyond the shock value of watching faces get peeled off in a mid-20th century movie. For one thing, the makeup effects used to make this hideous surgery possible still look great nearly sixty years later. I honestly doubt this would look any better if it were made today even with decades of VFX advancements. Also aiding this sequence is the restrained nature of the camera. Restraint may be a weird word to use for this kind of ghastly set-piece, but Franju keeps the camera at a distance for most of this scene. He doesn't shove the camera, and by proxy the viewer, into exposed blood vessels or anything like that. 

As a result, the scene is digestible while still visually coherent enough to allow us to appreciate the depravity. Even beyond this shocking sequence, though, Eyes Without a Face proves to be a great thriller. This is mostly because the movie isn't afraid to really look at things from Christiane's perspective. Intimate dialogue-free sequences just follow Christiane on what amounts to an average day in her life. Through such low-key scenes, we understand the horrors she has to go through on an everyday basis. The scares in Eye Without a Face don't just come from faces being peeled off. They're also derived from the psychology of Christiane. 

You know what else is chilling in Eye Without a Face? Composer Maurice Jarre's theme music for Louise. Whenever she's on the hunt for a new woman, she's accompanied by this foreboding music that's like some kind of precursor to the Jaws theme! Louise doesn't even need to approach her next victim to inspire chills up one's spine. The score as a whole does wonders for further enhancing the eerie ambiance of Eyes Without a Face as does George Franju's strong eye for visuals as a filmmaker. Those quiet scenes of Christiane alone wouldn't be half as effective without Franju's sense of blocking and staging.

Eyes Without a Face impresses on the most intimate technical level. But it's also a delight on the kind of surface-level pleasure we all go to horror movies for in the first place. I'm not just talking about that face-peeling surgery sequence either. Eyes Without a Face also features an incredibly cathartic ending involving Doctor Génessier being destroyed by the very dogs he's spent the whole movie abusing. Few things in all of art are as cathartic as watching people who abuse animals get their just desserts! Following that moment, Eyes Without a Face closes out with an evocative shot of Christiane wandering down a trail, her future unknown. It's a fittingly stirring ending to the equally stirring Eyes Without a Face.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: The Innocents

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #23: The Innocents

Does anyone remember that movie from January of this year called The Turning? I can't blame you if you don't considering that feels like an entire lifetime ago. That horror movie directed by Floria Sigismondi didn't call attention to the fact that it was based on previously existing source material. But it's a major movie in 2020, so of course, it was! In this case, the 1898 Henry James horror novella The Turning of the Screw was the inspiration for The Turning. This new feature was not the first time the novel had made its way to the big screen. Decades earlier, it had been adapted into a Deborah Kerr vehicle entitled The Innocents.

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is very excited about her new job. She's been tasked with looking over the two kids, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), of a wealthy governor. The mansion the kids live at is just glamorous and apparently the youngsters are adorable too. Now, of course, The Innocents is a horror film, so you know this can't be as simple as just another nanny job. On the premises of this place are a pair of ghosts that keep appearing to Miss Giddens and seem to be connected to abnormal behavior in the children. Could there be some haunted secrets in this seemingly idyllic location? Miss Giddens is going to get to the bottom of that if it killers her.

Across The Innocents, there's this growing sense of something being wrong. While the audience see's recurring glimpses of the ghosts driving Miss Giddens mad, we're never certain if they're totally real. The Innocents challenges the viewer to question what is reality and what isn't. In the process, an eerie atmosphere is created even when nothing obstenisbly scary is even happening on-screen. Like so many great horror movies, The Innocents isn't about the horrors you see but the horrors in your mind. In this case, the uncertainty over what's real or not, as well as the stability of our lead character, ensure constant terror hangs over the proceedings.

Aiding the persistent ominous tone is the environment the lead characers inhabit. The lavish manor Miles and Flora inhabit certainly looks like a postcard snapshot of wealthy living. But in the hands of director Jack Clayton, this mansion and its grounds can go from looking scrumptious to being terrifying. Specifically, Miss Giddens is dwarfed by everything around her. Add a few shadows and the creepy tone of The Innocents and the expansive nature of this mansion suddenly goes from feeling spacious to terrifying. Every nook and cranny of this place, from a lovely lake to the attic, is mean to be a reflection of exorbinant wealth but The Innocents cunningly turns it into a perfect visual reflections of Miss Giddens' despair.

The Innocents is just as creepy on-screen as it is on paper. The latter achievemt is due to screenwriters William Archibald and Truman Capote not only committing to their grim story but hinging the whole thing on the troubles of refusing to confront the past. Everyone around Miss Giddens, from her employer to a maid she befriends, tells her to just forget about what happened to her predecessor (who now serves as one of the ghosts haunting her). They say to bury her head in the sand and just ignore reality. Of course, much as it does in real life, that only allows problems to build up rather than actually solve anything.

Grounding the scares in a very real phenomenon mirrors how Deborah Kerr does superb work in her lead performance grounding the plight of Miss Giddens in something tangible. Her depiction of Miss Gideens becoming more and more unraveled as the movie goes on really stirs something inside of you. Kerr lends authenticity to this depiction of madness...or is it determination? Much like with the slippery grasp The Innocents has on reality, it also lends a similar sense of ambiguity to the psychological state of Giddens. The lack of a concrete psychological state for her character just makes The Innocents all the more effective as an eerie piece of cinema. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

The New The Witches Movie Brews Up A Harmless But Forgettable Adaptation

With the caveat that, yes, Roald Dahl was an alleged anti-semite, the children books by Roald Dahl proved to be some of my favorites as a kid. A simple reason I enjoyed them was how they weren't afraid to get dark. When you're a kid, entertainment that doesn't talk down to you is like catnip. So it is with Dahl's works, which weren't afraid to depict the despicableness of the world. Characters could get gobbled up by giants, get squished by gigantic peaches, and get sucked up chocolate pipes with no prior warning. None of his books went quite as hardcore with darkness as The Witches, which dealt with a band of witches who wanted to turn kids into mice. Like all kids books, The Witches ends with the child protagonist becoming comfortable with his own impending death. That's just what Dahl books did.

The newest attempt to translate Dahl's books into the world of movies comes with The Witches, which hails from director Robert Zemeckis. The basic plot skeleton of the original is kept intact, though th setting has been changed to Alabama circa. 1968. An unnamed Hero Boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) goes to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) after his parents are killed in a car accident. While here, Hero Boy learns that witches are real and want nothing more than to snuff out all children. In an attempt to evade these witches, Hero Boy and Grandma go to stay a luxurious hotel. Unbeknownst to them, a gaggle of witches, led by Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), are staying here and have a new plot to turn kids into mice.

As far as late-period Zemeckis movies go, The Witches is far more tolerable than Welcome to Marwen or The Polar Express. However, Hero Boy's first encounter with a witch in a supermarket confirmed my worst suspicions that The Witches would indulge in Zemeckis' worst modern-day filmmaking trait. It isn't enough for this witch to act unusual or adhere to the witch dress code (long gloves, wigs, shoes, etc.) established by Dahl's text. This witch also must have a giant glaringly CGI snake slither down her arm. Aren't these witches supposed to be incognito? That's the whole point of a disguise! Why would she have a CGI snake just out in the open?

This visual decision isn't bad because it departs from the source material. It's bad because it's a testament to how modern-day Zemeckis layers his scenes with in-your-face CGI that make subtext text. He's like George Lucas randomly adding a Dug to a nighttime scene of Return of the Jedi. The heavy reliance on CGI ends up undercutting moments that could have been enjoyably creepy in The Witches. You need things to be tangible to be scary and the distractingly fake nature of The Witches' use of CGI, like Grand High Witches cartoony enhanced nostrils, just makes the whole thing feel artificial, not eerie. The one exception here in the Grand High Witches fittingly unnerving elongated CGI arms. Credit where credit is due, those arms are pure nightmare fuel!

The screenplay, credited to Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, fares better at conveying a sense of actual dread, at least initially. Early scenes of Hero Boy coping with the loss of his parents at least take the time to show that his recovery isn't an immediate thing. Similarly, the initial instances where Hero Boy is learning about the witches have a fun campfire story vibe to them. But the second half of the story goes in a much more hurried direction. Here, The Witches finds itself much too in love with the antics of talking CGI animals as well as undercutting any sense of danger. Hero Boy is always so confident in his ability to take down witches that there's never any suspense even by the standards of a kid's movie.

Without much in the way of suspense in its back-half, The Witches mostly has to lean on the performances of its cast to keep the audience entertained. Luckily, Octavia Spencer does good work in the role of Grandma, and major props to her for acting so naturally off of CGI co-stars in her later scenes. The MVP of the cast, though, is easily Anne Hathaway, who is having a ball eating up the screen as the Grand High Witch. Armed with dialogue that makes no effort to conceal her wicked nature and a thick European accent, Hathaway has thrown caution to the wind, thank God. If nothing else, The Witches delivers some delightful camp with Hathaway's performance.

The rest of The Witches mostly falls under the category of forgettable. Aside from a staggeringly miscalculated ending (which combines a dance party set to We Are Family and a sequel-tease), little of it offends. But also, little of it leaves any kind of mark. Even kids, the ones raised on Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the original Witches book, will probably be hoping for more bite out of The Witches. Dahl's books worked so well because they didn't talk down to kids. Meanwhile, the Robert Zemeckis take on The Witches constantly sands off the edges of its own story to placate youngsters. In the process, we're left with a movie that's bound to leave few satisfied but most disappointed.

I guess it could have been worse though. They could have given The Grand High Witch a father who was also a dentist...

The Witches is now available to stream on HBO Max.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Charm City Kings Rules With Layered Characters and Memorable Motorbikes

Now that the pandemic has been going on for seven months and movie theaters have remained closed, some real tough choices are now getting made about what movies stay in theaters and which ones go straight to streaming. At the start of the pandemic, it was mostly movies like The Lovebirds, Scoob! or My Spy, stuff that probably would have flopped theatrically anyway, getting burned off. But now, the pandemic rages on and, most importantly, movie studios are back to work making new movies. With new films on the horizon, there isn't room on the calendar for all features to get theatrical releases. 

That means perfectly good movies made with the theatrical experience in mind, like Charm City Kings,  have been left to debut on HBO Max. A shame, but at least the movies good. Said movie concerns Mouse (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. He harbors dreams of one day becoming a veterinarian, but for now, he'll settle for ambitions related to riding on motorbikes. His neighbors that ride around on dirtbikes have the kind of freedom that he can only dream of. One of those bikers is Blax (Meek Mill), a recently paroled ex-criminal who now works out of a maintenance shop.

Mouse begins working with Blax in the hopes of securing his own bike, though Blax still attracts the wrong kind of crowd around his shop. That crowd might be able to help the financial situation Mouse's family is in...but at what cost? Charm City Kings is a coming-of-age yarn informed by compelling specific details related to the world of motorbikes. The elaborate scenes demonstrating the kind of stunts and tricks these motorbike drivers can pull off, particularly a set piece involving a pair of riders evading the cops, make it apparent why Mouse would be so enamored with this culture. Mouse is so often anchored to the Earth. But these riders, they seem to defy gravity itself.

Sequences depicting these stunts and motorbike accomplishments are filmed in a crisp manner under the direction of filmmaking Angel Manuel Soto and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi. Leaning heavily on wide shots, as opposed to more intimate handheld camerawork, is an especially good visual detail. That trait lends a sense of majesty in watching the various motorbike riders do something as simple as zoom down a street while also giving you an appreciation for the wider world that Mouse inhabits. As trite as it sounds, Baltimore is basically a character unto itself here and the wide framing allows one to appreciate every detail of the city.

As a whole, Charm City Kings is a snazzy-looking production, with recurring use of measured long takes being especially memorable. The script, credited to Sherman Payne, is a bit more basic, but it still proves compelling. Really, the only area where it's predictability feels especially troublesome is with the supporting character of Nicki. She's Mouse's new neighbor who initially functions as a love interest before Mouse becomes enamored in a more dangerous lifestyle that makes him cold and distant from Nicki. You can guess where their storyline goes from the moment she walks on-screen, right down to a tidy resolution that betrays the interestingly complicated nature of Charm City Kings.

Luckily, Payne fares much better with nuance in the rest of Charm City Kings' script, particularly when it comes to Blax. Here is a great example of a character who's able to function as both as an obstacle and someone you can empathize with. Sometimes, you want Mouse to just abandon Blax, other times, Blax feels like the perfect father figure Mouse has been missing. You can see all kinds of sides on this character in how Blax is written and Meek Mills gives him an appropriately layered performance. The characters of Charm City Kings are as layered as its long takes. That makes for drama as compelling as a particularly gnarly demonstration of motorbike stunts.

13 Days of First-Time Frights: The Crazies

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #22: The Crazies

It's not exactly going to be a mind-blowing sentiment to observe modern-day parallels in The Crazies. This George A. Romero movie from 1973 is about a small American town that goes to pot after the governments' response to their water supply being tainted by a bioweapon. Watching it in 2020, one can't help but evoke the modern-day world and the COVID-19 pandemic that has consumed it. In particular, the very same government ineptitude that Romero was satirizing with The Crazies is still around today casting a blind eye to the very existence of this virus in America. It may not be an original observation but it is one that reflects how well Romero used a horror movie to reflect reality. Nearly fifty years later, The Crazies is a piece of satire that feels timely rather than dated.

The specifics of the plot for The Crazies see the townsfolk of Evans City, Pennsylvania being infected by a mysterious disease that causes them to act irrationally and violently. The primary focus remains on David (Will McMillian) and Judy (Lane Carroll) as they, along with a select few others, travel across the town hoping for some sort of escape. Meanwhile, Dr. Watts (Richard France) is called in to help develop a cure for this disease. While there, Watts informs Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar) and the audience that what's actually going on here is that the water supply of Evans City has been tainted by a bioweapon. Now, time is running out for Evans City as the disease spreads and even more vicious behavior is enacted by government officials in hazmat suits looking to contain this contagion. 

Like all of Romero's early productions, The Crazies has its amateurish qualities. In this case, sound effects and vocal work tend to sound a bit off while the camerawork sometimes is too grimy for its own good. However, those cracks in the seams don't distract from the far more plentiful good qualities found in The Crazies, which demonstrates that quality writing and an evocative tone can overcome any budget limitations. In particular, Romero effectively handles executing the film's version of the age-old horror movie quandary "Whose the real monster?" While the infected townspeople would seem to be the easy answer to that, it quickly becomes apparent that the faceless government officials in hazmat suits are the ones providing more problems than answers.

Intriguingly, the faceless quality of the real antagonists in The Crazies even extends to the President of the United States, whose only seen from the back and openly endorses nuking a small town. The infected townspeople are acting like monsters because they have no choice. Their minds have been tainted by polluted drinking water. What's the excuse of the scientists, the clean-up crew and the POTUS? Their barbaric behavior is simply a byproduct of who they are. Much like with Night of the Living Dead, Romero commits to pondering the hostile tendencies of man all the way through the credits. There's no cop-out feel-good ending in The Crazies, only a scene depicting corrupt authority tossing aside their one hope of finding a cure.

Aiding the haunting grimness is the nature of the disease itself, which leaves no physical characteristics for either the characters or the audience to use to discern whose infected and whose not. In a typical zombie movie, you can figure out pretty quick whose undead and whose not by peeling skin or dangling jaws. But in The Crazies, it's a crapshoot. All your neighbors can look totally fine yet carry a newfound urge to set everything on fire. This quality is most hauntingly captured in a climactic shootout between David and other people he perceives to be infected. Turns out, though, they're just a couple of High School kids also looking for any kind of help.

One of these kids even calls out David by his last name, revealing that this was a student that David used to work with. Just a week ago, David saw this kid as a student, now, he almost shot this child without hesitation. It's a grim encapsulation of just how much uncertainty is always hovering around The Crazies. In this film, you can never tell who your enemy is while the people sent to protect you are just concerned with maintaining a good PR image. It's chaos all the way down. That makes The Crazies a harrowing experience for its characters, but another grim tour de force from George A. Romero for the viewer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

In Trying To Do So Much, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Comes Up Short

A lot has changed since the original Borat was released. For one thing, comedies focused on boisterous larger-than-life characters, the sort of figures Mike Myers and Jim Carrey made a career out of playing, have gone out of fashion. Grounded Judd Apatow-inspired comedies are the new go-to source for movie yuks. Meanwhile, the novelty of using Borat as a vessel to reveal that everyday people can be prejudiced isn’t quite as impactful in the age of Twitter. It seemed like there just might not be a place in the modern comedy movie landscape for the character behind the phrase “My Wife!”. But despite the hurdles, Cohen’s reprising his role as Borat for the new movie Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

It’s been fourteen years since the original Borat and that plucky journalist from Kazhakstan is headed back to the United States of America. His mission this time is to get into the good graces of Donald Trump, who has befriended every authoritarian leader on the planet except for the lead of Kazhakaiztan. Borat’s come along with his daughter, Tutar Sagdiyev (Maria Bakalova), in tow as a potential bride for someone close to Trump. These two will navigate the American landscape, which has only gotten more...openly problematic, let’s say, in the fourteen years since Borat was last here.

It must have been strange making Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Having kicked off filming last Fall, nobody behind-the-scenes could have predicted the arrival of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It may not have been in the shooting script but how could Borat ignore this ongoing health crisis? In an attempt to cover all these real-world hot button topics, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ends up strained. The most distracting sign that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is trying to stitch together a lot of disparate material is Cohen’s omnipresent voiceover narration. This has to do a lot of heavy lifting carrying the film from one ripped-from-the-headlines topic to the next. Especially awkward is a transition from Borat going on a personal mission to him suddenly navigating a world affected by COVID-19. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm too often feels pieced together by scotch tape. Even amusing segments, like Borat briefly working at a barbershop, are so detached from the rest of the movie that they feel like discarded Ali G Show or What Is America? sketches. Further hindering Borat is how it’s torn between opposing narrative impulses. On the one hand, it wants to recognize as many real-world issues as possible through episodic comedy adventures. On the other hand, it also wants to do a strangely conventional narrative involving Borat & his daughter. Borat can be a lot of things but predictable is not one of them. Unfortunately, watching him go down familiar character beats regarding his relationship to Tutar ends up being pretty predictable. That, as Borat might say, is not very nice.

In trying to spin all these narrative plates, jokes get lost in the shuffle. Though Borat Subsequent Moviefilm as a whole can't escape its messy nature, the various antics Borat and especially his daughter get into deliver a high amount of giggles. But yes, there are laughs to be had here. Adding Tutar to the mix as Borat's spirited daughter turns out to be a great way to keep the Borat character fresh. Maria Bakalova turns out to be Sacha Baron Cohen’s equal, and sometimes even superior when it comes to gross-out bravura. She’s a lot of fun in her ribald antics, with the only downside to Nowak’s performance being that her absence is truly felt whenever she’s not on-screen. 

Borat’s interactions with everyday Americans, meanwhile, aren’t quite as impactful as the ones seen in the original film. This is mostly because it’s not as surprising to hear, say, sexist views of women coming out of the mouth of an Instagram influencer. Still, some of the extended set pieces involving Borat getting people to lay their prejudices out bare do inspire both chuckles and gasps, particularly a sequence involving Borat’s country music ditty. Plus, giving Borat a daughter and a bunch of disguises to don (he has to conceal his identity after the popularity of the first movie) turns out to be a great way for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm to ensure it’s more than just a rerun of the original. 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm rises above the quality of your average comedy sequel, though it comes nowhere close to touching the original Borat. I’m not sure if there’s a place for Cohen’s type of comedy in the broad American comedy movie scene. But Borat Subsequent Moviefilm suggests Cohen is still good for some sizeable if disposable, chuckles.

In Laman's Terms: The Ever-Evolving Nature of Amazon Studios (PART TWO)

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in February 2019, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke outlined her planned for the film division, emphasizing a need for different types of film releases (some theatrical, some streaming, for example) and wanting to expand the kind of films Amazon released. Her push into transforming Amazon Studios would truly begin with the various movies Amazon had purchased at that year's Sundance Film Festival. After spending $47 million on the likes of Late Night and Brittany Runs a Marathon, the hope was that Amazon would start seeing films that garnered both acclaim and major box office.

Instead, Amazon faced some problems with these titles, with Late Night most noticeably getting off to a noticeably rough start in wide theatrical release in June 2019. Opening to just $5 million from 2,218 locations, Late Night fared better than Life Itself but Yahoo still estimated that the studio would lose $40 million on the project. Late Night was not going to be the second coming of The Big Sick, nor would Brittany Runs a Marathon, though that one did a better comparatively grossing $7.1 million from a peak theater count of 1,033 locations. Adding more bad news to the pile, Amazon's co-production with Warner Bros., The Goldfinch, grossed only $5.3 million domestically on a $44+ million budget.

By the end of the year, change was a-foot. For the first time, high-profile Amazon movies began debuting on the Amazon Prime streaming service without any theatrical release to speak of. This included The Aeronauts, a film shot with IMAX cameras that was sent to the Amazon streaming service instead of its original planned theatrical release. A handful of Amazon titles, like Honey Boy, still went the traditional movie theaters first route.

We'll never really know what Amazon Studios' original plans for 2020 were. Maybe they planned to continue the late 2019 approach of sending some titles to streaming, others to theaters. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, suddenly, everything went to streaming. Blow the Man Down, The Vast of Night, Seelah and the Spades, 7500, they all went directly to Amazon's streaming service. There was no other option with movie theaters around the world closed. Intriguingly, this year also saw Amazon stepping outside of their indie comfort zone. In April 2020, Amazon acquired the long-delayed family comedy My Spy and debuted it on their streaming service two months later. 

A studio that started out hoping to release titles like Her and The Master was now releasing My Spy. On the one hand, it's disappointing to see Amazon releasing titles any studio could release. On the other hand, admittedly, Amazon had already strayed away from its initial artsy ambitions from that point. Were Life Itself, The Goldfinch or Wonder Wheel really any worse than My Spy? Plus, a lot had changed in the five years since Amazon started out. When the studio began, it modeled itself after traditional theatrical indie studios like Miramax. Now, in the age of streaming services a-plenty, it needed to model itself more after Netflix. This meant not restricting itself to not just arthouse fare. This explains why Amazon Studios has recently acquired broadly appealing titles like Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and Coming 2 America as well as going into development on a My Spy 2.

It's not just Amazon acquiring mainstream titles either. Over the last year, Amazon has bought a number of pitches for mainstream movies they'll develop and produce in-house, including a comedy starring Awkwafina & Karen Gillan as well as an action/comedy vehicle for Idris Elba & John Cena. Interestingly, the studio hasn't abandoned its indie roots too. On the contrary, the end of 2020 will see Amazon Studios release their most prolific slate of award season contenders ever with the likes of One Night in Miami, Time and Sound of Metal

While Amazon Studios has faced troubles in the last two years, under Jennifer Salke, the studio has shown a level of dynamism that has allowed it to change gears when need be. The film industry is always in a state of evolution and Amazon Studios is no different. The same ambition that drove Amazon Studios to spend so much at Sundance 2019 is now driving it to expand what it means to be an Amazon Studios release. However future mainstream movies and award season contenders fare, the flexibility of Amazon Studios is to be admired. 

13 Days of First-Time Frights: The Orphanage

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020.

Entry #21: The Orphanage 


J.A. Bayona loves his broken families. In The Impossible, a tsunami wave threatens to tear a family apart. In A Monster Calls, the impending death of his mother leads to a boy lashing out. And in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, family audiences were devastated by the films tedium. This trait goes right back to the very beginning of his feature film directorial career with The Orphanage. Released in 2007, Bayona's inaugural feature film also established other critical parts of his repertoire, such as an affinity for gothic locations and emotionally brutal sequences.

Laura (Belén Rueda) grew up as a child in an orphanage that she's now moved back into as an adult with her husband and their adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep). As they move into their new domicile, Simón''s longtime fixation with imaginary friends gets taken to a new level as he befriends a bunch of imaginary kids that he swears are real. Laura dismisses it as childhood silliness until Simón goes missing shortly after discovering an elderly woman wandering around her property. Now, Lauren is realizing that there's something much more sinister at work from those adolescent imaginary friends. If she wants to see her son again, Laura will have to find out what happened in this orphanage and why the dead refuse to be at peace.

Props to The Orphanage alone for working so well as a campfire story that keeps you on your toes. There's an elegant simplicity to the movie that eschews the usual storytelling detours for these kind of movies, like absolutely nobody believing the protagonist when she starts talking about ghosts. Her husband is dubious, but our lead character is able to find some paranormal hunters in short order. In going this route, The Orphanage is able to spend less time spinning its wheel in a predictable manner and more time on exploring the psyche of Laura The sheer terror Laura feels over losing her son registers so vividly because The Orphanage makes sure there isn't anything to distract from her emotions.

These feelings effectively inform the various suspenseful set pieces of The Orphanage. An extended sequence where the medium Laura has hired has a haunting encounter with the children ghosts proves especially unnerving. Choosing to capture this interaction through security camera footage partially obscures what's happening to her and that's exceedingly frightening. The mind reels with what kind of horrors she's experiencing in that room. Meanwhile, the fact that an expert of the paranormal is being so overwhelmed by these spirits makes one petrified over how Laura could possibly stand up against these ghosts. 

Of course, by the end, The Orphanage pulls back the curtain to reveal that it's not really a straightforward spooky ghost tale. While the movie has been playing the ghost children as scary entities for so much of its runtime, the final scene of The Orphanage renders these deceased adolescents as tragic figures. Even the Tomas, who is adorned in an unnerving mask, turns out to be a victim of a prank gone awry rather than a slasher film villain. It's a bold move, one that gives The Orphanage the rare tearjerker ending in horror movies. Many of these films end on a note meant to unnerve the soul. The Orphanage, meanwhile, concludes on a brutally melancholy note.

The execution of this plot turn isn't quite flawless. Most notably, an early scene of Tomas attacking Laura and locking her in her bathroom feels out of place. It works for making the audience think Tomas will be a traditional slasher movie villain, sure. But such brutal actions don't fit in with the actual characterization of Tomas and the other kids. That particular scene feels like a ham-fisted red herring rather than an organic set-up in disguise. Still, the big about-face in Orphanage's final minutes mostly works quite well and wraps this tale up on a memorably creative note. It's interesting to see fragments of Bayona's work in The Orphanage but the film proves plenty intriguing on its own entriely divorced from Bayona's filmography.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: 28 Days Later Review

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020. 

Entry #20: 28 Days Later

Zombies came roaring back at the start of the 2000s. Like any cinematic trend, it wasn't just one movie that caused this resurgence. Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake while Shaun of the Dead, while a parody of the genre, still helped to spur renewed interest in the undead. Before either of those movies was Danny Boyle's 2002 feature 28 Days Later. This one proved especially impactful due to how it established a new pop culture norm for fast-moving zombies rather than the slower ones that had been the norm ever since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. While zombie fans remain divided over whether fast zombies are an improvement or not, it's much more certain that 28 Days Later is a darn good movie, zombie-affiliated or otherwise.

28 Days Later begins with an utterly terrifying prospect; what if you woke up and the whole world was different? This isn't even a Rip Van Winkle scenario where decades have passed, which makes it at least understandable why everything has been upended. Jim (Cillian Murphy) was in a coma in a hospital for only four weeks when the world went to hell. Now awakened, Jim wanders the empty streets of London before eventually discovering that the undead are roaming the country. Teaming up with one of the human survivors, Selena (Naomi Harris),  Jim is trying to adjust to a radically different world and stay one step ahead of the flesh-hunry undead.

Danny Boyle has shown a gift for zeroing in on tangible humanity in the middle of much larger stories. The internal anguish defining a bunch of street punks in Trainspotting. A contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is deeply explored and revealed to be far more than just a game show participant . Even Steve Jobs, a mythic figure in pop culture, got unearthed as a complicated human being in the hands of Boyle. No surprise, then, that a zombie apocalypse allows Boyle a chance to linger on the strands of humanity left and focus on them in an intimate manner. Zombie carnage abounds, of course, but so too does a constant sense of what is making these survivors tick.

Contrary to the wall-to-wall grimness that defines something like The Walking Dead, it's nifty how there's discernible humanity in the people who inhabit 28 Days Later. This is especially apparent in the rapport between ftaher-and-daughter duo Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns). It's the end of the world, sure, but they goof around with shopping carts in an empty grocery store or Hannah will bonk Frank on the head with a suitcase. It's the same kind of goofball behavior they'd engage in even if an apocalypse wasn't tearing apart the world. Juxtaposing normalcy against bleak doomsday material serves 28 Days Later quite well, as seen by an oddly moving scene of our principal leads observing a bunch of horses just galloping along as the world around them crumbles.

Of course, this is still a zombie movie, so it's not all galloping horses and father/daughter shenanigans. There's also lots of super-speedy zombie carnage to deal with. Said violence is dleivered through a  rapid-fire editing and hyperactive camerawork that will prove familiar to anyone whose watched Boyle's earliest movies. Jim's first time running from zombies has some visually murky moments, but otherwise, 28 Days Later does a great job making this world seem not just scary but utterly overwhelming. Zombies are crashing through doors, windows or anything else in their way. Danger can appear at any moment and the visual elements of 28 Days Later harrowingly reflect this sense of unpredictability.

Of course, much like in Night of the Living Dead and so many other pieces of zombie-centric media, humans end up being the principal villains of 28 Days Later rather than zombies. Really makes you think whose the real monster, huh? In all seriousness, though it's not the boldest take on a zombie movie, the third-act of 28 Days Later reaffirms that familiar storytelling can be made to feel brand-new so long as the execution is good. Here, the intense filmmaking, not to mention some nicely cathartic gruesome deaths, ensure that it's able to lend a new dimension to the idea of humans being the real foes during a zombie apocalypse. No wonder zombies got a new lease on life after 28 Days Later. With this movie, director Danny Boyle has managed to make stories about the undead feel more alive than ever.

Monday, October 19, 2020

American Utopia Is Pure Bliss

American Utopia, a filmed recording of the Broadway show of the same name, begins with musician David Byrne contemplating how many neural connections we lose when we go from babies to adults. "Does that mean we get dumber as we get older?" Byrne ponders to the audience. Byrne's desire to understand what happens to those connections establishes the contemplative attitude of the whole show. American Utopia then gets into twenty different musical performances delivered by Byrne and eleven accompanying musicians. If you're familiar with the last concert film Byrne headlined, Stop Making Sense, you'll get an idea for the kind of creativity that's unleashed in American Utopia.

However, anyone expecting just a rehash of Stop Making Sense will be disappointed. American Utopia is totally its own creation and a magnificent creation at that. From its very first song, Here, American Utopia hits the ground running with such bold creative swings. Here has an ethereal quality to it, thanks to the soft chants in the background and the use of instruments like a sitar and a tambourine. Listening to it makes one feel like they're occupying some sort of dreamscape you've never seen before. The gentle vocals of Byrne are the perfect guide to take you through this new land. As the music soaks over you, American Utopia reassures the viewer that they're in masterful hands.

From there, American Utopia delivers a barrage of songs that carry the kind of distinct sounds and unique lyrics we've all come to expect from Byrne tunes. Much like Wild Wild Life or Take Me To The River, the songs in American Utopia are the kind of tunes you want to sing along to even if you're just hearing them for the first time. How can you not want to wrap your lips around lyrics like "Oh, I'm wicked and I'm lazy"? Accompanying the memorable words are sounds that just dig into your eardrums and don't let go. The drums in Lazy, for example, create an amusingly energetic contrast to the lyrics praising the virtue of lethargy. 

Such drumming skills demonstrate that, across these assorted tunes, the accompanying musicians are just as much of a treat to watch as the captivating Byrne. It's truly impressive to watch them gracefully adapt to new styles and tones whenever the songs require it. They can sound like a jubilant marching band for one tune and then immediately switch gears to carry a more somber quality when the occasion calls for it. Among the musicians, the most memorable have to be Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. At times, these two act as extensions of Byrne himself, with this becoming literal for one musical number where they move his appendages across the stage. Giarmo and Kuumba are the most prominent of the accompanying musicians in terms of screentime. However, they more than earn their pronounced presence thanks to how they can seemingly do everything from play instruments to dance to engage in physical comedy.

These talented performers play off a sparse stage that surrounds everyone with what looks a wraparound Doorway Bead Curtain. The minimalist approach to the set turns out to be a gift in many ways. For one thing, it's a great way to emphasize the focus on the actors. For another, it's easy to implement new elements to the backdrop. This is most notably seen in the musical number I Should Watch TV, which incorporated a gigantic beaming light on the side of the stage to simulate the warm glow of a television set. The set and surrounding beads are also covered in a light blue color that's extremely pleasing to look at. One can appreciate these visual accomplishments thanks to the exquisite direction of Spike Lee. Like the best visual effects, Lee's camerawork is so good because you so often forget about it. Lee immerses you in the on-stage performance to the point that we forget we're even watching a pre-recorded production.

All of these visual and musical gifts are used for splendid entertainment but Byrne also wants to use American Utopia to make the audience appreciate the wider world around them. From a segment dedicated to emphasizing the unique home countries of the individual musicians to Byrne engaging in amusing visual comedy to drive home how important local elections are, American Utopia isn't just escapism. It's also conscious of the shortcomings of the real world. This is most notably seen in the most stirring portion of the production, a rendition of the Janelle Monae song Hell You Talmbout. Here, Byrne and his musicians urge viewers to say the names of lives lost to race-based police brutality while photographs of the likes of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner are held up, sometimes by their own relatives. 

In the middle of American Utopia, Byrne goes into a monologue about dadaist artists and he describes their aims as "Using nonsense to make sense of this nonsensical world". In a way, Byrne and his accompanying musicians are aiming to do something similar. The lyrics of songs like Every Day Is A Miracle may sound like total lunacy out of context. However, tunes like this and the other ditties that populate American Utopia are grappling with matters that are all too real. Songs like Hell You Talmbout do this through appropriately overt means that force viewers to confront real systemic problems that are too often ignored. Others like Once in a Lifetime and Toe Jam tap into distinctly relatable feelings through their bold artistic tendencies. 

I was particularly struck by this latter type of song while watching I Dance Like This. The song swiftly jumps from tranquility in its verses to an aggressive sound during its chorus. To me, I took that as a realistic reflection of what it's like to live life as someone considered "different" from society. You don't always feel just one way about it. Sometimes you're at peace with it, other times you're feeling much more abrasive about it. The emotional complexities of that experience are reflected in the varied sounds of I Dance Like This. Whenever Byrne and his musicians chant "If we could dance better, then you know that we would" against harsh guitar strums, you can feel the frustrations of anyone who has ever been told to erase the things that make them "different" (like gender, sexuality, disability, etc.) This is just one example of how the songs of American Utopia so effectively channel the real world through creative means.

With I Dance Like This, American Utopia delivers a song that you can both rock out to and dissect in such an in-depth fashion. Believe it or not, the entire production is able to constantly deliver songs this good. American Utopia doesn't solve the problems of the world. No piece of art could ever do that. But American Utopia does give us a musical means to confront those problems. To boot, it emphasizes the power of unity and the virtues of individuality, two things so often ignored in this world. Watching this movie, the overwhelming nature of the world suddenly felt a bit more manageable. These qualities are reinforced by the movie's closing number, a rendition of Road to Nowhere. Never have the songs lyrics felt more inviting, more exhilarating, more like a call to action for people to be themselves, and to challenge the world they occupy. 

David Byrne and director Spike Lee have crafted something special with American Utopia. It's a toe-tapping soul-enriching experience you do not want to miss.

American Utopia is now streaming on HBO Max and the HBO app. 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Is A Quaint Film About Revolution

Let's go back to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago 1970. This is where it all went down. This is where the events of The Trial of the Chicago 7 kicked off. A storm of anti-Vietnam War protestors belonging to different groups, like Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), had descended on a Chicago park. Shortly thereafter, the local police decided to respond to their presence through violence. Afterward, eight of these individuals, including Hoffman, Hayden, Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), were arrested for conspiracy to cross state lines to incite violence.  A trial proceeded to take place where the eight defendants all tried to get their voices heard in the face of a court more interested in using them to deter further activism than any actual due process.

With The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer/director Aaron Sorkin is squarely situated in the courtroom drama mold that he's worked with so often in film and on Broadway. His expertise in this genre means that Sorkin can play the most cathartic moments in Chicago 7 like a fiddle. Just look at a scene where Michael Keaton's Ramsey Clark reveals the real reason that he allowed two government officials to overhear his conversation with Hoffman's lawyers. It works so well because of how Sorkin knows just when to time the revelation for maximum "Aw yeah!" cheers. There's a number of other moments like that in Chicago 7 that may be cornball but are nonetheless pleasing. 

Certain parts of The Trial of the Chicago 7 don't really feel like a Sorkin movie. For one thing, not once did anyone do a Walk & Talk sequence. That's probably because Chicago 7 doesn't focus on any one character long enough for us to follow them down a hallway delivering a monologue. The feature has such an expansive focus that Sorkin is frequently cutting across different characters at different points in time. This tactic proves most interesting in scenes dedicated to police officers being interrogated about what really happened that fateful day in Chicago. Their testimony about unruly protestors is played against flashbacks (and even actual archival footage) showing police brutally harming protestors.

Unfortunately, the worst uses of this cross-cutting tactic tend to muddle characters rather than flesh them out. Sorkin's so busy hopping from one point in time to the next that the personalities of on-screen characters get lost in the process. I kept wishing The Trial of the Chicago 7 would allow me to get to know these characters out of the courtroom, off the stand-up stage, and outside of a rally. Characterization also gets lost due to the film's tendency for high-stage theatrics. The story of Bobby Seale, for example, is told here in a manner that eventually reduces him to being just a prop. Said prop's only purpose is to allow white characters (like rival lawyer Richard Schultz) to establish their credibility as not actually racist people in big dramatic line readings.

Such a scene delivers lines of dialogue that are handy for a trailer but don't do much to make Seale a person. This is especially a shame given that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives one of the best performances of the whole movie in his screentime. Alas, Abdul-Mateen II can only do so much when his character is undercut by The Trial of the Chicago 7's surprisingly blase attitude towards minorities and women. The revolution is here, but Sorkin's gaze is only focused on the most privileged of activists. In any year, that would feel like an undercutting of Chicago 7's central themes. In 2020, though, amidst rising protests against race-based police brutality, it feels especially insulting. 

The ensemble cast of Chicago 7 contains performances that are all over the map. Sacha Baron Cohen delivers great work in the lead role. It was a clever idea to have Cohen play an outsized jokester who's also an activist. It allows Cohen to play upon traits that he's bee utilizing for years as a comic while also allowing him to flex his dramatic acting muscles. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Eddie Redmayne, who struggles mightily to convey any sort of discernible personality in his performance beyond just being a broadly-defined antithesis to Cohen's Hoffman. Reliable character actor staples like Frank Langella, Mark Rylane and John Carroll Lynch do memorable work in supporting roles.

All these actors are working under the guideship of Aaron Sorkin in his second stab at directing feature films. Unfortunately, his visual style hasn't improved much from Molly's Game. Chicago 7 mostly just looks flat while the filmmaking misses a number of opportunities to serve as a visual reflection of its lead characters. Thankfully, Sorkin's underwhelming directorial work doesn't get in the way of the genuinely effective moments in The Trial of the Chicago 7. There's enough of those moments to make Chicago 7 an agreeable watch. However, Sorkin's best screenplays (The Social Network and Steve Jobs specifically) and the boundary-pushing nature of its real-life characters kept making me wish for more. The Trial of the Chicago 7 could have been more than just a familiar take on people who wanted to upend the world.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

13 Days of First-Time Frights: Let Me In

13 Days of First-Time Frights is a series of reviews where Douglas Laman, in the spirit of Halloween, watches and writes about thirteen horror first-time watches These reviews will be posted each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as the three Wednesdays and a Friday, throughout October 2020. 

Entry #19: Let Me In

American remakes of foreign-langauge films frequently feel like a pointless exercise. Yes, good examples of this genre exist, most notably in Martin Scorsese's The Departed or The Birdcage. But for the most part, the likes of The Secret In Their Eyes or Godzilla (1998) just miss the whole point of the original property without carving their own identity as an acceptable substitute. Add to the pile of good examples of this trend Matt Reeves' Let Me In. A remake of the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, itself an adaptation of a book of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let Me In isn't just rehash leftovers. It's just a good chilling vampire yarn in its own right!

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is having a troubled time at school. Living in Los Alamos, New Mexico with his newly-single Mom, Owen is constantly harassed by bullies. Feeling all alone, Owen soon finds a friend in new neighbor Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz). Though Abby insists the two keep their distance at first, they eventually bond over, among other things, Rubik's Cubes, arcade games and the shared sense of being lonely in a town full of people. But there's a wrinkle. You see, Abby is a vampire. Not just a harmless kind of vampire either. She needs blood to live and her "father", Thomas (Richard Jenkins), has been slaughtering local townsfolk for her. Owen finally has a friend...and she's also a monster.

Tomas Alfredson's approach to Let the Right One In was one deeply rooted in European arthouse sensibilities with ts prolonged single-takes and muted atmosphere. There was a clinical approach to the movie that was as cold as the snowy ground the adolescent leads walked on. In the hands of Alfredson, that sense of detachment actually worked quite well at reflecting how the protagonists felt so isolated from the world around them. For Let Me In, writer/director Reeves smartly opts to go in the opposite tonal direction. Let Me In is a movie with lush emotional moments that can be popped, like a pin puncturing a balloon, by the grisliness of Abby's condition.

For much of Let Me In, the film could easily function as just a coming-of-age drama rather than a straightforward horror movie. Abby and Owen bonding in an arcade or the duo dancing to music in Owen's apartment while his Mom is out, these scenes perfectly capture that sensation of awkwardly navigating your first crush. Lead performers Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz impressively reflect the unique authentic imperfections of their individual characters. Across both performances, though, is the poignant idea that these two truly feel at home in each other's company. In their time together, two loners don't have to be so lonely.

Just when you're lulled into thinking the whole movie is just centered on adolescent sweetness, Reeves pulls the rug out from under the viewer. This whole thing, after all, is centered on a carnivorous vampire. Reeves commits just as heavily to the gruesome horror sections of Let Me In as he does to the coming-of-age portions. Any of the scenes of Thomas going out to capture people for Abby are especially chilling mostly due to Reeves' sense of restraint. These largely dialogue-free scenes get so much tension out of just Thomas waiting in the backseat of these cars rather than slicing people's throats open. Meanwhile, the choice to frame some of his actual killings from afar only heightens their impact. Again, in these moments, we see how Let Me In uses prudence to its advantage.

Come to think of it, a number of the best scary moments in Let Me In are built on the same thing that fuels the sequences dedicated to Thomas going out and murder people; a sense of growing dread. Abby's feigning an injury to lure a jogger or a cop breaking into Abby's home all get so much suspense out of the viewer knowing more than the characters on-screen. These suspenseful set pieces are a great use of Alfred Hitchcock's "Bomb Theory" but they're also exceptional in how well they play on the audiences' investment in Owen and Abby. No matter how much carnage is occurring on-screen, the relationship between Owen and Abby never gets lost in the shuffle. Scares work in the service of characters in Let Me In, not the other way around.

On top of all that, the movie looks great too. The camerawork is certainly not as distinctive as the bold cinematography of Let the Right One In. But Reeves still delivers plenty of memorable imagery here, particularly in an extended single-take following Thomas trying to hurriedly leave the scene of a botched kidnapping. I'm sure in 2010, when found-footage horror movies with oodles of shaky-cam dominated movie theaters, seeing this kind of crisp camerawork on the big screen was extra exciting.

I'll freely admit that, going into any American remake of a foreign-language film, I carry a good amount of trepidation. But leave it to the filmmaker who turned a pair of Planet of the Apes blockbusters into incredibly evocative pieces of cinema to also make a Let the Right One In remake that can stand tall alongside the original. Let Me In is no cash-grab horror remake. Instead, it's a thoughtfully rendered feature that carves out a bloody involving coming-of-age yarn.